The world is changing and you need to pay attention to an important trend: digital natives are not very good at paying attention. Neither are those of us who spend a significant amount of time online with complete control over how long we view / process information flows (e.g., web surfing). We jump from task to task quickly, often because our brains have been trained to seek out constant stimulation from novelty and change.
Based on web usage data (see Writing for the Internet Generation), I must assume that most of you will not read this entire article. In fact, you are likely to only read 20-40% of it. You might leave because you don’t find the content engaging. You might leave because a thought of something else pops into your head. You might be struck by the urge to check your email. You might be interrupted by an IM conversation. You might even leave via one of the many links in this post. Whatever the reason, the predicted average time readers will spend on this page is somewhere around 90 seconds. The point is: YOU WILL MOVE ALONG QUICKLY.
That is important for me as a content creator to realize. It’s also important to realize as a marketer, an employer, and a parent.
The Discipline of Brief
As I prepare to officially launch Crowd Space (http://crowdspace.net), I am preparing an intro video for the home page. I have set the strict requirement of 2 minutes because I care deeply about visitors actually watching it. I am keeping text on the home page minimal so the brief time I have someone’s attention is spent considering my product rather than scanning text.
I enjoy writing and speaking, especially about topics I really care about such as a product I’ve poured my heart into, so it takes discipline to be brief. It is an art form I am working on. I have become increasingly aware of the length of emails I write. In some ways Twitter (I’m @derekhat, BTW) and IM have been good for helping me boil thoughts down to very succinct points.
I do wonder, though, if we are cheating ourselves as a society with our plunge into brevity and 9 second attention spans.
Thar Be Dragons?
Some researchers and educators are quite concerned about the trend toward short attention span and shallow multitasking, suggesting that we might be doing damage that will have wide-reaching social implications:
…that’s what worries me. That we are rearing a generation of kids that are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate, hedonists with the attention span of a gnat. Because they spend the majority of their time in front of a computer screen. A whole generation that can’t interact because their skills are limited to inhabiting a fantasy world on a screen."
The human brain, Greenfield explains, is very sensitive to change. And as we become increasingly addicted to a lifestyle in which the virtual world of the computer screen so often replaces reality, so our brain adapts to a new way of life – to our detriment.
"People who spend a lot of time interacting through the screen can easily become emotionally detached," she says. "They see life as a series of logical tasks that demand immediate reaction. Language gets crunched, along with the ability to imagine or analyse and attention spans shorten."
Recently I noticed a group of teenagers (boys and girls mixed) sitting together at church who were all staring at devices in their hands. They occasionally muttered things to one another but they reminded me of toddlers playing near each other rather than with each other. With no eye contact and limited verbal communication, I wondered how these kids would ever learn to flirt, an important social skill for anyone interested in every attracting a mate (IMHO).
Of course some would just call me a fuddy-duddy and point out that they are probably interacting via those devices. Sure, that’s probably true. But these kids also have to learn to interact with other parts of society and develop the ability to adhere to different social norms based on context. A story I recently came across illustrates how the behaviour patterns of digital natives can actually alienate them from other parts of their social world:
The professor was teaching in a computer lab and saw one of his students sending e-mail messages to someone during the lecture. The professor told him to pay attention.
"I’m listening," the student said.
"Well, I would like you to turn and look at me," the professor said.
"Why?" said the student. "I have an A in your course, and I can repeat back what you said."
That is a "cultural shift," Mr. Sweeney says. "To the professor it was rudeness. To the student, it was, Why shouldn’t I do it in a way that works for me?"
I’m not going to fault a student for multitasking in a computer lab. I often did homework from one course while sitting in other lectures if the professor was moving through the material slowly. But it is significant to note that the professor had expectations and the deviation from what the professor considered appropriate social conduct caused tension. What will happen when an entire generation hits the workforce and has to work closely with the older generation that holds radically different expectations about social norms and appropriate behaviour?
While classroom decorum is an issue that those of us on the other side of graduation are mostly detached from, there are bigger life-and-death implications here as well:
Young people make bad jurors because they find it hard to concentrate for long periods, according to the most senior judge in England and Wales.
The so-called ‘internet generation’ are so used to information presented on a screen that they are unable to listen to complex arguments in a courtroom, said the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge of Draycote.
If I’m ever wrongfully accused of something, I’d sure as heck like to know that the jury of my peers has the wherewithal to actually pay attention to the case.
How Did We Get This Way?
"Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things," says Ted Selker, an expert in the online equivalent of body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
"If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating," he told the BBC programme Go Digital.
The mind seems to gravitate toward novelty. Not only does a novel experience seem to capture our attention, it appears to be an essential need of the mind… The pace of novel experiences has changed…
Today’s mind, young or old is continuously bombarded with new and novel experiences. Rather than novel opportunities every few days or weeks, we now have novelty presented in micro-seconds…
Video and television have trained our minds to perceive and interpret quickly and be ready to accept the next presentation. Even outside of television and video, the presentation of commercial product is at an unprecedented pace.
So it would seem that if you get used to constantly switching between tasks (or other inputs), you train your brain to be "uncomfortable" without the continuous flood of novelty.
Clearly access to many sources of information flow is part of the reason we’ve become this way. We watch television shows broken into small chunks interspersed with many short commercials. The second we become bored, we can channel surf or skip over the commercials with a DVR (Tivo et. al.). We listen to radio stations with ads as short as 2 seconds. We read a steady stream of barely formed thoughts from many sources brought to our virtual doorstep via services like Twitter and Facebook. We watch online videos on YouTube where the average length is less than 3 minutes.
So much of our world is broken into small mental bite-size chunks that it can take some effort and discipline to actually get into a situation without constant distractions. When I was in university, people would go to the library to study in carrels where they were theoretically free from most distractions (roommates, TV, phone, etc.). Now cell phones, laptops, and wifi access have turned even that former sanctuary into a place you can easily attention surf.
And this all starts young. A study from 2003 concludes that "early television exposure is associated with attentional problems at age 7. Efforts to limit television viewing in early childhood may be warranted, and additional research is needed."  So even before we know better, our parents can plant us in front of the television too often and apparently create attention problems. Although the brain is incredibly malleable, I wonder how much one can recover if inundated with today’s hyperpaced media and constant novelty from an early age.
Are we dooming the next generation?